The Object of an Act of Torture

December 5, 2006 § 1 Comment

In a comment on Jimmy Akin’s blog explaining my understanding of torture and why I think it may be more accurate than a few other proposed definitions (reasonable definitions to which I do not take exception as inherently proportionalist) I wrote:

So the composition of the choice “make him suffer” and it’s moral quality “as a thing not a person” is what makes the object evil, thus making the act intrinsically evil.

The object of the act is your specific choice of behavior (which JPII states “cannot be separated from its bodily aspect”), independent of why you choose to do it. It is, indeed, the very place where free will meets reality and has its immediate effect on reality. Given the difficulties in defining free will discursively – philosophers have tried to do so for millennia and failed – it isn’t surprising that people struggle with putting this into words. Assuming that it can be put into a “definition” with “criteria” is, if not understood correctly, already to make an error.

If you don’t believe me, try to make a specific definition of “greenness” as experienced by a conscious person.

Because it is nevertheless, like “greenness”, something we all experience quite directly. So talking about it indirectly is all we can do on the one hand, but on the other hand it is a part of all of our universal experience.

Despite the obscurities – obscurities driven in part by our modern positivist and scientistic tendencies (and thus obscurities which would not necessarily have been thought of as such in the classical tradition) – we still can get a pretty good understanding discursively. Words are powerful things for communicating meaning, even though (or perhaps because) positivism is dead. So it is possible to talk about these things and even specify them in a sense, but not in a positivist sense.

An act is intrinsically evil when it is, in its chosen object, opposed to the truth about Man. The object is the acting subject’s immediate choice of behavior. “Inflict suffering” isn’t an object at all in itself: it raises and does not answer the question “inflict suffering on what?”

For example, we might inflict suffering on a dog, or a beetle, or a man. And it is wrong to do so, always and everywhere, whenever there is a lie built into the object: whenever the object is by its very nature opposed to the truth about Man and God. When a perpetrator chooses to torture a man, the thing he is choosing to make suffer is not a man in his understanding as he makes that choice: that is, if he is treating that man as nothing but raw materials for producing a fungible commodity, there is a lie built into the object of the act.

Now we’ve already established (or at least claimed) that it isn’t possible to determine the object of an act solely by reference to direct external observation. And it isn’t: as JPII says, in order to grasp the object of the act it is necessary to place onesself in the perspective of the acting subject, in addition to taking into account its physical dimension. But for the sake of positive law we can indirectly ask questions which can tell us if the “as a thing not a man” quality is present in the act: not to a point of logically deductive discursive certainty, but to a point where we can make and enforce external rules (which are different in kind from the natural and divine law, since these rules we are making are only formal third-party rules). So we can make and enforce a law which says that failing to stop at a red light results in a ticket, even though it is literally impossible to discursively define “redness” and it is impossible to directly observe whether or not the acting subject chose to ignore the truth of that redness. And we can make a law which says that making a captive suffer just to get something you need from him, external to due process and legitimate punishment, is itself punishable by court martial; we can do this even though we can’t discursively define “treating-a-person-as-an-objectness”.

In fact we have made and ratified such laws. Some of them are generally referred to as “The Geneva Conventions”.


§ One Response to The Object of an Act of Torture

  • Anna says:

    You might like < HREF="" REL="nofollow">this blog post<>. It reminded me of what you wrote. There’s a certain appeal to that way of thinking, but I’m still not sure if and how it would apply to different situations.

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